Get Happy! UK government to measure well-being

Feeling fine? Frustrated? Fantastic? The British government really wants to know.

British officials said Monday they will start measuring national happiness in addition to gauging more traditional data like income levels and fear of violent crime.

The new plan makes good on a campaign pledge by Prime Minister David Cameron, who promised during the general election earlier this year to measure subjective levels of well-being when the government is collecting citizen data.

Detailed plans have not been announced, but the new questions are expected to be formulated by National Statistician Jil Matheson late this month for inclusion in a survey next spring. She said Monday the policy change is welcome.

"There is growing international recognition that to measure national well-being and progress there is a need to develop a more comprehensive view, rather than focusing solely on gross domestic product," she said.

The decision to look beyond simple pounds and pence measures is part of a "science of happiness" movement that has taken root in several other countries, including France and Canada, as officials and academics study the failure of rising living standards in recent decades to be accompanied by a similar rise in personal contentment.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has reached a similar conclusion, two years ago asking two Nobel prizewinning economists to devise ways to measure quality of life factors in addition to simply economic factors when France it studying its policy options.

Canada has also developed a national well-being index, a concept pioneered by the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

The surveys asks Canadians subjective questions like "How much do you enjoy your life?" and "Are you comfortable with your current level of debt?" and asks about their core values, living standards, and identification with minority or ethnic groups. The British survey is likely to use a similar approach.

Richard Layard, an emeritus professor at the London School of Economics who has contributed to British government studies on how best to measure happiness, praises the trend.

"I think it's wonderful," he said. "It's something I and others have been advocating for some time. It's based on the idea that unless you measure the right things, you won't do the right things."

He said government surveys that focus only on economic advancement lead people to be obsessed with their income rather than other factors that can lead to happy, productive lives.

Data in the UK, United States and other countries show that happiness levels have remained more or less static even as disposable income and financial security rose substantially in real terms during the great postwar expansion of Western economies.

This phenomenon, often called the Easterlin Paradox after economist Richard Easterlin, is cited in a September UK Office for National Statistics report stating that "UK levels of life satisfaction and happiness have not risen since the 1950s, despite unprecedented economic growth."

This suggests that more than economic expansion, traditionally measured by income levels and gross national productions, is needed for people to feel contentment in their lives.

University of London Professor Richard Schoch, author of "The Secrets of Happiness," said the British government initiative meshes well with Cameron's "Big Society" slogan.

"This fits perfectly with the Big Society agenda because most civic organizations focus on quality of life matters," he said. "The survey becomes the tool for collecting data relevant to Big Society initiatives."

But there is the potential for government meddling in personal affairs based on the new information it is collecting, he said.

"The state sets the conditions that allow citizens to become happy in their own lives," he said. "But the state must not interfere too deeply in such personal matters. The public needs to be on the lookout for signs of happiness meddling from Westminster."

On Monday, some Londoners seemed unimpressed by the government's planned foray into determining how happy they are.

"It seems patronizing," said bartender Katya Johnson, 22, pointing out that student riots last week indicate real unhappiness with government budget cuts to education and other services. "They can't pander to our sympathies. There's no sympathy with the government. We have made it quite clear the government cuts were contravening our wishes."


Benjamin Timmins in London contributed to this report.